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Tina Fey's "Bossypants" Lessons for the Workplace

Once in a generation, a woman comes along who changes everything. Tina Fey is not that woman, but she met that woman once and acted weird around her.
Fey, the first woman to head the writing team for Saturday Night Live, the producer, writer, and star of 30 Rock, the youngest recipient of the Mark Twain award for comedy, and the woman who does a better Sarah Palin than Palin herself, continues her conquest of all media with her new book Bossypants, a comic memoir. Mixed in with her stories about bad jobs and worse dates, she has some important lessons about work -- getting a job, doing it well, using the "Sesame Street" approach to obstacles ("over, under, through"), and creating a successful business, brand, and career.
  1. It's all material: Despite the self-deprecating humor that often has Fey telling stories about her own cluelessness, one theme that emerges from this book is the way that she is constantly observing everyone around her and making use of what she learns from the good and bad examples, sometimes in guiding her own career and sometimes inspiring some of her funniest scripts.
  2. Find a way to like it -- but not too much: After college, Fey worked as a 5:30am-to-2:30 pm receptionist at the YMCA. Instead of thinking of it as beneath her, she found a way to like her job. She was not snarky or disdainful about the work or her co-workers. "I'm the kind of person who likes to feel like part of a community," she writes. "I will make strange bedfellows rather than no bedfellows." She genuinely appreciated the lessons the job had to teach her about the importance of professional courtesy and consideration. But finding much to like in the job did not make her lose sight of her goals. When an opportunity came for a promotion, she took it, even though one of her colleagues wanted the job. And when the opportunity came to leave the YMCA, she did.
  3. Yes, and: Fey's discussion of the rules of improvisation should be handed to every business student and new hire. The key rule of improvisation is "yes, and." It means "don't be afraid to contribute. It's your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you're adding something to the discussion." Whatever is thrown at you, you are supposed to agree and add something of your own. "In other words, whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don't just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles."
  4. Don't ask stupid questions. Do ask good questions: A stupid question to ask Tina Fey: "My whole life, people who ask about my scar within one week of knowing me have invariably turned out to be egomaniacs of average intelligence or less." She is not wild about questions about the role of gender in humor, either. If you want to make a good impression think of an interesting, unexpected -- and un-intrusive question.
  5. Give credit to the people who do the work: Fey says her advice to bosses is to "hire talented people and then get out of their way." She explains why the Saturday Night Live writers are a combination of Harvard nerds and Chicago improvisers. She describes the writing staff of 30 Rock affectionately -- and then lists the best joke contributed by each of the writers. It is an astute and instructive guide to what makes jokes funny, what makes people funny, and how different specialties, backgrounds, and perspectives contribute to their creative contributions. It is a classy acknowledgment of the people who play a critical role in the show's success. And it is hilarious.
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